Much at stake for Ian Happ as 2021 Cubs season winds down
Ian Happ’s situation is one of the most intriguing storylines over the final five weeks of the 2021 Cubs season.
Will he be a central part of the team’s core in 2022 and beyond?
The 27-year-old has not had the season he or the Cubs anticipated after a 2020 in which he was in the conversation for NL MVP.
Happ’s batting average has not eclipsed .200 for most of this year and prior to the trade deadline, he was not a consistent member of the starting lineup as David Ross played the matchups.
But he’s had a regular role since the deadline selloff and Happ is starting to make the most of that opportunity. He has a pair of 3-hit games over the last 10 days, including a big game Monday night where he went 3-for-3 with a walk.
In Game 2 of Wednesday’s doubleheader, he singled and added a game-tying 3-run homer in the bottom of the 7th inning.
Happ is hitting .462 over his last 9 games and is slashing a solid .270/.341/.540 (.881 OPS) since Aug. 1.
If he continues to hit like that, it will go a long way toward eliminating any questions about his future in Chicago.
The switch-hitting outfielder boasts a career .786 OPS and is under team control through the 2023 season. He is making $4.1 million this year in his first season of arbitration.
“He’s got a track record of success but hasn’t had the year he wanted,” Ross said. “It’s nice to see him start coming around, swing the bat well. I think it’s continuing to see if he can get back to who we believe he is and can be and show those results.
“Expectations and what we all feel like guys can do are important but at the end of the day, you gotta go out and do it. It’s a production-driven game and league. Happer’s starting to show a lot of the signs that we’ve been waiting to see and hopefully he can continue that through the end of the season.”
The recent hot stretch could be what Happ needs to settle in over the final few weeks of the season. At the very least, it’s a decent confidence boost.
“When you produce and have success, the confidence follows,” Ross said. “That’s what I think you’re seeing in the at-bats. He’s able to enjoy, relax and go out and play the game the way that he knows he can. That’s why you’re seeing some of this momentum carry on because he has a lot of confidence.”
Happ certainly understood what was at stake for his own situation after the Cubs’ trade deadline moves. He has spent the year trying to shake off some bad luck and work through the frustration of a difficult season.
After a slow April, he had the breakout game he was searching for in Cincinnati on May 2, hitting a game-tying 3-run homer among his 3 hits. But shortly after the longball, he collided with Nico Hoerner in the outfield and wound up on the injured list.
Happ had a solid run for a few games after he returned from the rib injury but then struggled to maintain consistency into May and June.
The Cubs were fighting for the division at that time so by mid-June, Happ was no longer an everyday player. Kris Bryant had become a regular in the outfield and Patrick Wisdom emerged as a staple at third base, so Ross played the matchups with the other two outfield spots between Happ, Joc Pederson, Jason Heyward and Jake Marisnick.
Pederson was dealt during the All-Star Break and Bryant and Marisnick were traded away at the deadline. Even with Rafael Ortega’s standout performance, Happ knew he had a regular role in the starting lineup entering August.
“It’s the same [approach] as always,” he said. “Getting the work in and trying to find things that are gonna work on a consistent basis. To have the opportunity to run those things out in a game is obviously something that you don’t always get. To be able to have that and take advantage of it.”
After the trade deadline, Happ became one of the longest-tenured Cubs players. Only Kyle Hendricks, Willson Contreras and Heyward have seen more time in Chicago than Happ.
That meant an added responsibility to help carry on what Anthony Rizzo, Javy Báez, Bryant and others helped build at the corner of Clark and Addison.
“It’s a lot about the culture and maintaining what it means to be a Chicago Cub,” Happ said. “What it means to wear the uniform and the success that we’ve had. And taking a lot of those things into the next group of players that are gonna be here, establishing that.
“That’s the responsibility of the guys who have been here to continue to pass that along.”
It is yet to be determined how and where Happ fits on the Cubs in 2022 and beyond as Jed Hoyer’s front office reshapes the roster.
This time a year ago, Happ looked like the surefire answer for the organization’s revolving door in the leadoff spot and center field. However, he has not hit leadoff since late June and has hardly played center since early July.
But a few good weeks to end the 2021 season could help solidify where he fits into the big picture.